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18 Feb 2013

Fishing on foot in France

The French love of sea food is emphatically demonstrated by the popularity of la pêche à pied, literally fishing on foot, every time there is an exceptionally high and low tide. Thousands of people descend on beaches at low tide, armed with a variety of tools, and rake and dig and scratch to collect a bucketful of shellfish, shrimps, crabs and even proper fish.
These tides – les grandes marées – occur a varying number of times every year, depending on alignments of earth, moon and sun. There was one on February 11, which happened to be the first sunny day for weeks, and a Monday when many people are not working. And best of all, the low tide time was about 4.00 pm, so that it did not interrupt lunch.
The Bay of Mont St Michel in Normandy has the highest tides in the world – up to 15 metres difference between high and low. As a result, there are huge amounts of sand and rocks exposed along the miles of beautiful sandy beaches at the very low tides. St Martin de Bréhal, just north of Granville is typical. There are commercial farmed mussel beds apparent at normal low tides, but at les grandes marées the sea retreats far further out.
So, after lunch on Monday, hundreds of people went to the beach, men, women, families, old and young. By mid afternoon there were more people along the water's edge and in the shallows than on a hot summer weekend. The sound of the raking could be heard from hundreds of yards away.
People of all ages arriving at the beach, armed with special tools
 The Bay here has whelks – Granville is the biggest whelk producer in France – and scallops, both of which are quality controlled and protected. There are also clams, queen scallops, flatfish such as flounders, and round fish like sea bass (hard to catch without rod and line), but also crabs, lobsters, oysters and many other crustaceans, shellfish, and fish.
Wading, digging, scratching and raking for a host of  creatures
The la pêche à pied is a long established tradition, but now has to be controlled to protect resources (link in French). There are limits on how many of each species can be collected, and on the minimum sizes. One can buy plastic boards with holes labelled with the species: if an example goes through the relevant hole, it is too small and must be put back. The range of species, and the limits for each, at Granville are in this table (in French).
By full low tide, there are thousands of people on the edge or in the water mall along the coasts, as here at St Martin de Brehal, with Granville in the background 
This being France, where laws are obeyed and are enforced (or repealed after manifestations – protests, demonstrations and civil disobedience) the vast majority of people comply with the restrictions. However, some don't, and the police do carry out raids; the penalties for too much or too small include fines of up to 22,860€, about £20k . Last year at several beaches a couple of hundred police, customs and ministry officials descended and checked every basket and creel. A large number of people were charged, and had their catch confiscated.
Although the majority just get enough for a family meal or two, there are some who are effectively commercial, taking things to sell, and they are the real target of the rules.
If you ask anyone why they do it, there are three main explanations: for the fun of the outing, for the reward of the hunt, and for the freshness of the food. Quite right, too.
Three hours later, after everyone had gone home, the tide came back and all but the a ribbon of sand was under water.

1 comment:

John Laidler said...

My wife and I visited the Morbihan area of Brittany this September and saw the same hordes fishing at low tide along the coast south of Sarzeau. A lady we spoke to showed us her catch of shrimps and velvet swimmer crabs. We wished her bon appetite!